In many ways, last night’s documentary about Raine Spencer, Princess Diana’s ‘Wicked’ Stepmother (Channel 4) – you can almost hear the lawyers grunting with the effort of staying the hands of producers desperate to do away with those quotation marks – was great fun.
How could it not be, with the high-camp figure of Barbara Cartland’s pathologically bouffanted daughter at its centre, and all the only slightly less camp figures gathered together – like moths around a heavily perfumed flame – to describe the steely socialite who dazzled and appalled everyone she met. It was a measure of the woman that you could rarely tell whether the person speaking had been her friend or foe.
She said of the young Diana: “She’s got nothing to say! Once you’ve finished talking about Duran Duran, that’s it,” recalled her hairdresser, gleefully. A friend (insofar, of course, as staff can ever be), but one either unaware or unconcerned by the fact that casual comments like that about your teenage stepdaughter might be misconstrued – or possibly entirely correctly construed – by a wider audience. “You don’t,” said (Lord) Julian Fellowes, “become a countess three times by accident.” He was a friend. It’s possible that in aristocratic circles the definition of the term is someone kind enough to whet the stiletto so well that you barely notice the blade going home.
At the age of 18, Raine McCorquodale (pronounced ‘fladhfieaedhfeslreptbff’) shucked off her painfully middle-class moniker and lifestyle by marrying the hon. Gerald Legge, heir to an earldom. Even after he had succeeded to the title, the new viscountess found him a terrible bore, so moved on to Johnnie, the eighth Earl Spencer (pronounced “Lord Althorp”). They married in 1976, and she began the process of alienating the 14-year-old Diana and her three siblings and turning the 500-year-old family home (pronounced “Awltrupp”) into a Las Vegas-style gin palace. “She was a ‘now’ person” said an antiques expert, struggling to keep control of his facial expression as he remembered the fresh gilding lavishly applied to everything that had had the temerity to fade over its lifetime. If the earl had kept still for long enough, she would doubtless have spruced him up, too.
The Spencer children gave her a biography of Marie Antoinette for Christmas. Nicely done, kids. They had to wait until Diana married Charles in 1981 for the sweet taste of revenge; the bride had her seated at the back.
Raine continued undaunted. She opened a souvenir shop selling – according to another loyal friend – “hideous tat” – and had a whale of a time meeting the common folk therein. Then the earl died and the new earl flung her – and her clothes, in bin bags – out before the body was cold. Raine re-countessed herself 13 months later by marrying Conte Jean-François Pineton de Chambrun. Attagirl.
But when Diana’s marriage collapsed, and she was cast adrift by the royal family, she turned to her stepmother as the greatest mistress of self-reinvention she knew. They reconciled, and Raine steered her through choppy waters until Diana was killed in 1997. Raine herself died last year, aged 87, a few weeks after giving a dinner party for 30 of her closest … friends. She had told none of them she had cancer.
As contributions to the anniversary of Diana’s death go, there have been worse. Amid the fun, frolics and gorgeous gasps of horror elicited, it didn’t mask the sadness at its heart. We are used to looking at the footage of Charles and Diana’s engagement and realising now how impossibly young she was. But we forget that, just five years earlier, her mother had left the family home, and her father was commandeered by a woman who seems to have been – depending on how posh/polite you are – “a barbed-wire powder puff” or glorious, weapons-grade nightmare. What chance did she ever have?
Prof Richard Clay delivered the first of a three part series, Utopia: in Search of the Dream (BBC4), that was itself close to perfect. It examined what our visions of utopia over time have revealed about people’s hopes and fears, via everything from Thomas More to Swift and Star Trek, and from the communising of land to creative commons on the internet without ever (except maybe with a slightly indulgent interview with Lt Uhura, Nichelle Nicols) losing the thread of exploration. I shall spend the week reading More and Christine de Pizan (early delineator of a female utopia, apparently, and I’m keen to extract any working details) while I wait impatiently for the next episode. Superb stuff.
• This article was amended on 11 August 2017. It originally said Charles and Diana married in 1987.
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